Antarctica: When the Volcano Blows

By November 30, 2006Miscellaneous

We visited Deception Island today, which is part of the South Shetland Islands. What a cool name, eh? On the island, there is a place called Whalers Bay, between Fildes Point and Port Foster. It is here where we got to check out a former whaling station. The area had some remains of a few houses and some large tanks for storing food and processed whale oil. Oh, and don’t forget the whale bones! While walking around the beach, you can see the mostly-intact skeletal remains of several very large Blue Whales.

Blue Whales are, and have always been, the largest mammal on earth. Just for a quick perspective, their tongue is the size of an elephant. I’m told we are going to have a lecture tomorrow on whales, so I’ll be sure to take lots of notes and write more on that subject then.

A few more things on Whalers Bay: Once home to 1,000 people, The Bay was abandoned in 1911 after the price of whale oil dropped. Looking inside the abandoned houses gives the impression of a ghost town that people left in haste. The station remained abandoned until early in World War II when Operation Tabarin (which we spoke about yesterday) found use of the area as ‘Base B.’ After The War, it became a scientific research station. The area is very historical but here’s the best part: the bay is actually a caldera of an active volcano! The volcano last erupted in 1991 and, prior to that, in the 1960s, when it was officially abandoned for all uses and now remains a historic landmark.

We hiked up the cone of the volcano for a great scenic view. When we came down, the expedition crew was digging two fairly sizeable holes on the beach right near where the tide comes in. We were told prior to disembarking to bring our bathing suits because the underground water near the shore is very, very warm and we might have an opportunity to take a dip. This natural hot spring is created by water heated from the magma several
kilometers below the surface. When the holes were dug, we did what any self-respecting traveller would do in the snows of Antarctica: We jumped in!

There’s something quite funny about saying that you jumped into a hot tub on a beach in the Antarctic Circle. If that wasn’t enough, someone had the bright idea and dared us to run out into the freezing cold ocean and then jump back into the thermal spring. It was another one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

As we boarded our zodiac boat and began to move towards the ship, the engine gave out and we were stuck in the middle of the bay. Thoughts of Gilligan’s Island flashed through my head. But, all was well about ten minutes later when a rescue boat came to collect us.

Later this afternoon, we had our postponed lecture by Dr. Lance Morrissey on the geology of Antarctica. He talked about the break-up of the Gondwana supercontinent and how this, along with the creation (through the land separation some 48 million years ago) of the Drake Passage was critical to the Antarctica we know today. The result of this separation was the circumpolar ocean drift which began forming the ice around 30-35 million years ago.

At one time, Antarctica was actually two separate smaller landmasses, but today they are connected by the Transantarctic Mountains. Morrissey also wanted to impart with us the importance of the Beacon Supergroup of fossil records that proved life was once teeming on Antarctica. This place was once even home to dinosaurs!

Following this lecture, we had a short meeting on our final destination, Half Moon Island. It is a crescent shaped (1.25 mile long) island lying in the entrance to Moon By on the east side of Livingston Island in the South Shetlands. We saw some more Chinstrap penguins and basically used the opportunity to go on a nice long hike that took us up a few hundred feet. This was somewhat bittersweet, as it was our last excursion of the entire trip. It was interesting to observe that nobody talked during the hike; instead opting to soak it all in for the last time.

We returned to the ship, waited for dinner followed by a movie and called it a night.

Tomorrow we’ll be travelling all day through the Drake Passage, which, as I write this entry, appears to be slightly rougher than last time.